To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
Joshua Ferris’s third novel begins with the mouth, a place that is “not quite inside and not quite out”. This is where his protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, a dentist, spends most of his time. At a very surface level, O’Rourke leads a successful life: his thriving practice off Park Avenue, New York, has ensured him financial rewards. He is, however, plagued by a paralysing anxiety about the meaninglessness of life and he remains alone.
There have been two serious loves in his life: one with a woman who was Catholic; and the other, most recently, with Connie, who still works at his dental surgery and whose Jewish faith in part caused their separation. Though O’Rourke is an atheist, he envies believers for their life’s sense of purpose. He is looking for something in life that could be his “everything” and hasn’t found it in movies, the banjo or baseball. Despite his disaffection, the problem is not that he doesn’t care enough, but that he cares too much. He refuses to have children or keep a dog out of an overwhelming awareness of what might go wrong.
The novel is spun around a curious case of identity theft: someone created a website and Twitter account for O’Rourke’s dental practice without his permission. He enters into a mysterious email exchange with the culprit and the man’s identity is slowly revealed, as is his connection with a secretive group called the Ulm, which places its faith in doubt.
O’Rourke is a man deeply in denial. He constantly obsesses about his ex-girlfriend Connie. Not until almost 80 pages into the book does he offhandedly mention his father’s suicide when he was a boy. Yet this is the heart of his dilemma: he is in search of something to live for in order to escape the same fate as his father.
Despite the existential subject matter, Ferris’s prose is riddled with comedy. The absurdity of the everyday is what Ferris does best by bringing his strange and misshapen world into minute focus, such as in this fine description of Connie’s uncle: “The calm passage of air in and out of his nostrils was audible in a grave way.”
What replaces the spiritual void left by the decline of religious faith? It doesn’t matter in the end that Ferris can’t offer us a straightforward answer – his beautifully unusual and poignant novel provides enough of a consolation. HT
Viking, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 2, 2014 as "Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour". Subscribe here.